Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 12 September 1994|
Go for long Sunday drives as the Buccaneers did in their home opener and it can feel like you just left Indy .500. It helps to have a quarterback like Craig Erickson at the wheel and some high-speed receivers who know how to catch in traffic. And for once, the Bucs didn't have to stop and get directions to find the end zone.
Erickson completed 19 of 24 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns Sunday to lead the Bucs to a 24-10 win over the Indianapolis Colts before 36,631 - the smallest crowd to watch a home opener at Tampa Stadium. The team that had become known for not finishing drives traveled 80, 84 and 90 yards for touchdowns against the Colts.
The victory left the Bucs tied for second in the NFC Central at 1-1 with Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit. Chicago (1-0) plays at Philadelphia tonight. It was the first loss this season for the Colts (1-1), who saw their grand Marshall Faulk rush for 104 yards and catch seven passes for 82 yards but still had the Bucs ruin their parade.
Not since he arrived in Tampa Bay in 1992 had Bucs coach Sam Wyche faced a bigger game. Headlines filled the newspapers about potential ownership groups planning to make an offer for the Bucs - until club officials announced Sunday that the team is not for sale. And after watching his team blow the opener in Chicago a week earlier, Wyche said a loss to the Colts would be "like throwing a big rock in a pond. The ripple effect is big.
"We've had the heartbreak of Week 1 and the excitement of Week 2," Wyche said. "We choose the latter from here on out."
And this should not go overlooked: For the second straight game, the Bucs did not commit a turnover. That's quite an accomplishment for a team that was tied for next-to-last in the NFL in the giveaway-takeaway ratio last season with a minus-14. Erickson, who came out 1-for-7 in the opener at Chicago, got the Bucs off to a good start Sunday by hitting Charles Wilson with a 50-yard touchdown pass.
It was a big lift for Tampa Bay's offense, which never scored a touchdown on an opening drive last season and stalled on a 21-play, 10-minute march at Soldier Field a week ago.
With the Colts' defense ganging up to stop the run, Erickson bombed away, throwing a 48-yard TD pass to Jackie Harris and hitting Tyji Armstrong with a 25-yard flea-flicker pass on third down to set up the Bucs' last touchdown.
It was a day for Tampa Bay's receivers to atone for their four-drop day last week in Chicago. Courtney Hawkins, who missed the opener with a broken hand, caught four passes for 72 yards - including the late 3-yard TD. Not that the Bucs' receivers were perfect, mind you.
Wilson dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone with 13 seconds left in the half, forcing the Bucs to settle for a field goal and a 10-3 lead.
"I was so wide open," Wilson said. "The main thing is to catch the ball, but I was thinking about celebrating. I just dropped the ball. I'll tell you I'll take the blame for that one. I have no choice but to take the blame."
The Bucs got Wilson off the hook by padding their lead 17-3 on Erickson's 48-yard strike to a wide-open Harris. The Bucs drew that play up "in the dirt," according to Erickson, when they noticed the Colts safeties jumping on a screen pass out of that formation. The game was a breaking-out party for Harris, who caught four passes for 96 yards after being virtually shut out in Chicago. "We had good protection, and Craig threw it beautifully," Wyche said. "He threw for over 300 yards, three touchdowns. It could've been four. We dropped a pass. Fine. But we didn't drop a lot of crucial passes. We didn't make a lot of big mistakes."
The same could be said for the Tampa Bay defense, which had its hands full with Faulk.
After spraining his wrist on the game's first play, Faulk returned from the locker room and beat the Bucs on the ground and through the air.
Even with the score 24-10 and 6:37 left, Faulk made a game of it. He beat cornerback Mike McGruder on a 47-yard bomb from Jim Harbaugh, and it took a goal-line stand to keep Indianapolis from pulling within a touchdown.
"They have one of the most exciting running backs to come along. He'll be the talk of the league for a long time to come," Wyche said. "(The defense) didn't have a lot left. They spent everything they had for this win."
That was particularly true of linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who was glued to Faulk and made 18 tackles. The Bucs gave up 364 yards, and the Colts controlled time of possession 34:27 to 25:33. "Seventy plays is too damn much in that heat," Bucs defensive coordinator Floyd Peters said. "What I'm proud of is the fight. We were on the field so damn much."
How long Erickson would have remained on the field without a win Sunday is anyone's guess. Strolling the sideline is Trent Dilfer, the Bucs' $16.5-million rookie.
But after throwing 20 interceptions a year ago, Erickson has not committed a turnover in his first two games, and the protection enabled him to connect with his third and fourth receivers. But it was Erickson's ability to throw the long ball that stunned the Colts.
"I don't think just because he hasn't come into the league with the reputation of being the Mad Bomber that he can't throw the ball down the field," Wyche said. "What we are preaching so hard with him is don't take chances down the field. But if you've got it, we want you to go for it. Just don't try to thread the needle 30 or 40 yards away. Take what they give you."
On Sunday, the Bucs were willing to take a win any way they could get it.
"We knew we couldn't start the season 0-2," said Bucs cornerback Martin Mayhew, whose interception killed the Colts' last drive. Our team is too good for that. You start out 0-2 and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. Now we're 1-1, we're starting the season over again and we've got 14 games to play. We're right in the hunt again."